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Book Recommendation: Finnikin of the Rock [Jun. 30th, 2011|10:36 pm]
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[Current Location |Peekskill, New York]
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[music |The Bridge of Khazad Dum, Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack]

For ten years, the kingdom of Lumatere has lived under a curse, with no one able to enter or leave it. Trapped outside the kingdom, young Finnikin of the Rock has devoted his life to securing a new homeland for the Lumateran diaspora. Then he meets the novice Evanjalin, who dreams of the lost Lumateran heir, Prince Balthazar. With the help of Evanjalin, Finnikin now has a chance to do what he never before thought possible: bring the Lumateran people home.

Take two things which I dearly love—fantasy adventure and Melina Marchetta's writing—combine them together, and the result is pure, undiluted win. Marchetta brings her genius (a word I use without a trace of hyperbole) for plotting and insight into the human condition to provoke a sense of wonder and giddy excitement I haven't felt from a book since childhood. Much love to boojumlol for introducing me (via Kyra Smith of ferretbrain) to Marchetta's work.

Finnikin of the Rock employs many classic fantasy elements, but it doesn't read like a typical fantasy novel. It's not a story about defeating the villain or winning/ending/preventing the war or saving the kingdom or even just saving one of the main characters. Those things all happen—more or less—but they're aspects of the story, not its main focus.

The story of Finnikin of the Rock is a story of reclamation and recovering from trauma. Indeed, I recently read Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery, and this book serves as a decent companion piece. At the beginning, you have the initial trauma of the royal family's assassination, the ascent of a brutal dictator in their place, the wave of violence and terror these twin events unleash, and finally the curse by the dying matriarch of the Forest Dwellers. In the middle, the characters finally end the trauma by leading the Lumaterans home, breaking the curse, and overthrowing the usurper. For the final few chapters, you see them beginning the long and painful process of recovery and healing as they begin to reconstruct their beloved kingdom.

Unlike Marchetta's previous book—the phenomenal On the Jellicoe Road—the story here is of building up from tragedy, rather than building up to even more tragedy. This may cause the novel to lose out on a bit of its predecessor's emotional punch, but on the other hand, I'm much more comfortable giving this book a blanket recommendation than On the Jellicoe Road—which many of the people I know would give up as too depressing. And when I say “lacks emotional punch,” keep in mind that's in comparison to my own personal gold standard for emotionally-charged fiction. Finnikin of the Rock is still the most exciting, enthralling, emotionally engaging story I've read since … well, since On the Jellicoe Road.

Apart from being Marchetta's first fantasy novel, Finnikin of the Rock is her first book to feature third-person narration and all-male viewpoint characters. Obviously, this was a book for Marchetta to stretch herself as an author, and she succeeds spectacularly.

The characters are a bit odd. Neither Finnikin nor Evanjalin come across as Mary-Sues, despite the former being fluent in seven languages, a master at swordplay, an adept knife-thrower, etc.; and the latter being a ridiculously resilient survivor with more than a touch of the Master Manipulator archetype.

I find myself having an especially difficult time describing Finnikin, as he feels like such a generic fantasy protagonist. Marchetta goes into sufficient depth with Finnikin to keep him individualized, and he's certainly not a cliché hero. Coming from another author, I might even have been struck by his characterization, but he just doesn't stick out the way Taylor Markham or Marchetta's other protagonists do. It doesn't hamper the story, but in this way at least, the book is perhaps not quite as good as I'd expected.

As long as I'm quibbling about the characters, I think Marchetta could've devoted a little more time to establishing Lucian before reintroducing him into the narrative. Finnikin spends the first two hundred pages or more reminiscing about his childhood friend Prince Balthazar, but not so much his other childhood friend, Lucian. When Lucian and Finnikin finally reunite, it should be a triumphant moment, but because he's had only a perfunctory buildup, my reaction to this turn of events was rather tepid, and more to do with what I'd extrapolated about their relationship than what Marchetta showed in the text.

Compare that with the presentation of Trevanion. By the time he shows up, Marchetta has already established him as a deeply caring man and a first-rate badass. When he finally appears “on screen,” the reader already cares about him, and is stoked to see him kick some righteous arse. Which he does.

I'm also growing increasingly sick of the attitude in Fantasy that (to quote Niall Harrison's review of Graceling) “monarchy is just fine as long as there’s a Good Monarch on the throne.” To be fair, someone does point out that the Lumaterans were so emotionally dependent on the royal family that their assassination throws the country into barbarism literally overnight, and there's a throwaway line at the end about putting together a new constitution for the country. Yet the new ruler still demonstrates extraordinary unilateral powers – which is just fine because it's a Good Monarch who only makes Good decrees. Blergh.

While I mostly enjoyed the romantic subplots, there was one line near the very end which made me wince. A female character tells her betrothed that when they're married “you can touch me whenever you want. Wherever you want.”

The context is the two of them dealing with an overprotective guard. Now maybe I'm being an over-reactive Man!Feminist about this (again), but this assertion left me a little queasy. I don't know what it's like in Australia, but here in the US, the criminal justice system only recently overturned the notion that a wife signs over all control over her body to her husband upon marriage, and she therefore owes him sex any time he wants it.

Speaking of romance, just when I was thinking 'all very nice, but this narrative is going to be completely heteronormative, isn't it?,' two of the King's Guard casually mention being bonded to each other. Later on, Lucian lightly teases Finnikin by telling him essentially “I don't bonk other men, but if that's what you want, I've got a cousin who'd be happy to oblige.” Sure, Lucian's taunt may carry a whiff of homophobia if you take the suggestion to be emasculating for Finnikin, but the sexuality of the gay characters is treated as both positive and unremarkable.

The plot and backstory are as satisfyingly complex as I've come to expect from Marchetta, though the twist with Evanjalin must rate at least nine KiloBrooks on the predictability scale (the twist itself, not necessarily all the associated details).

Bottom line: Finnikin of the Rock is a lovely story, downright lyrical in presentation. As the story unfolds, the reader feels the wonder of discovering a beautiful new world; the heart-beating intensity of grand, sweeping adventure; and the pain and joy of friends and family and homeland lost and found. Highly recommended.
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